The outline advantage

Joe’s Post #81 – 

Vegas and writingThe good news/bad news about an outline is that you can spot a problem must faster than if you wrote out 500 pages, gave it to a critique group or an agent or your dog. By doing up an outline, sometimes you simply cannot make something work no matter how much you love it.

That was my experience this week.

I had a fantastic story idea, a great character, I had an epic story-line, good action, a great ending, some emotion here and there, and even a villain that I think would stay with everyone. But there was a big flaw. At least one I cannot overcome at this point.

thI may not have the right hero, the right protagonist, for this story. Oh, I love the guy, I really do, but his background, his job, his skills, well… let’s just say it pushes believability a bit far. Maybe too far.

I’ll do some brainstorming over the weekend, probably bug my CBCG (Chief Brainstorming Coffee Guru) and see if we can’t make it work, but it could be that I have to drop him and run with someone else.

You’d think that would be an easy fix. Take out Sherlock Holmes, insert Han Solo. But imagine how the story changes. Character is plot and if I have to sub out my lead, then the plot will surely change as well.

So the next question I have to ask myself, is the change for the better?

Either way, I saved myself a whole lot of writing doing up an outline. I suspect it’s not an uber outline like Karalee has done, but it’s good enough to spot the flaws.

I’ll keep you posted, but I want to start on that novel in March. I’ll set another 5 month deadline. In the meantime, more research (which I still suck at), more brainstorming and probably more lying in bed sorting scenes in my head.


Number of Queries Sent: 5

Number of Rejections: 3. All were very nice and professional. Didn’t make me feel any better, but at least I know and man, they were fast rejections.

Number of Queries I’ll send next week: 10

Number of Other Blogs Written: 1 (About Older Brothers)

Number of Blogs Written About My Stupid Braces: 10 (all not posted due to an attack of shyness).

Temperature at Grouse Mt: -14. (-200 with wind chill.)

Number of New Coats Purchased To Combat Windchill: 1

Pictures Taken at Pond Hockey Tournament at Grouse Mt: 423.

The thrill of outlining – part 3

Karalee’s Post #65

outlining courseMy outlining course through Writer’s Digest University finished this week and I am well on the way to having a story I’m excited to spend the next few months writing. I I still want to do more characterization, especially of my antagonist. I also want to up the stakes in a few places for both my antagonist and protagonist and add them into my outline.

The outlining course began with my basic story idea, then moved to a premise sentence that introduced my story situation, the protagonist and antagonist, and the major objective. This process automatically encouraged my brainstorming process, all those ‘what if’s’ that I love (and I think most writers do) that push my creative spirit in any and all directions, some of which are outlandish, crazy, weird, and that might just work if this and that happens….. During this creative time, this course encouraged me to also try to think about my theme as well as character motives and conflicts. Looking back, this was something I hadn’t concentrated on as much before, and it was very helpful in coming up with bigger moments  with more at stake than I may have otherwise done. (Part 1)

Part 2 was exploring one’s characters and settings. All major characters need to be explored in depth. Whether you make a formal outline or not, writers need to know their characters as though they are “real” family, friends, or enemies. We need to know why they do what they do. This means, what has happened in their lives to make them think and act the way they do? This process is extensive and time consuming, but also a great time saver when it comes to writing scenes. For me,knowing my characters also adds to the pleasure of being “in my character’s head” while I am writing.

Settings must also seem real and knowing and feeling a country or a city takes more understanding than an office, kitchen or bedroom. Helga’s last post explores this topic well.

So what is left for Part 3?

outline endThis is where you take all the brainstorming ideas, the characters and settings and story lines, and organize them into possible scenes while still jotting down other ideas that may come to mind as you do this. I think of this like sorting “dots” into the picture that will come to light once they are all connected. This is the Extended Outline and depending on your writing style, it may be quite extensive to include ideas that both work or don’t seem to, or merely simple one-liners as a reminder for when you write the scene later.

At this point all your brainstorming ideas are recorded in whatever detail works for you. Most of us don’t want to trash any ideas as there could be gold to be mined later if we are stuck, but it may be quite onerous to wade through everything during your story writing. To help streamline the process, it is helpful to sort through everything at this point (especially since it is fresh) to make an Abbreviated Outline that is easy to follow as you write your scenes.

For me, this outlining process has been very helpful and definitely worth my time and effort. I am starting out eager to write my story with a much better feel for my story and theme, my characters and settings, and their conflicts and growth.

I don’t feel that my creative forces have been stifled at all since I’m keeping an open mind to the probability that some characters may try and take over and others may come on stage that haven’t shown themselves yet. I will let them do what they feel they need to, but since I have a good idea of where my story needs to go, if characters go too far in an unworkable directions, not too much time and effort will be given to them.

Happy writing!

This writer’s tool box

Paula’s Post #63 – So, once again this 5writer is, uhm, over-extended.

No, I do not mean that my credit card payment is overdue (although that is entirely possible, too, as I’ve abdicated responsibility for paying bills to my lovely but occasionally forgetful husband). No, I’m overextended in life, yet again. This week’s highlights:

1) Three house guests – My husband’s sister and two of her friends, down to the desert for a two week visit, bringing our quiet house to life with food and wine and music and laughter. All lively and fun, but harder than ever to find quiet moments to just write;

2) The Sochi Olympics – Oh, admit it, you’re watching too. And why not? This is required watching for writers. To quote the famous opening to ABC’s Wide World of Sports: “The Thrill of Victory… the Agony of Defeat’. And while Vinko Bogataj  might not be a household name, who hasn’t held their breath and bit their lip, watching the hapless ski jumper’s spectacular wipe out at the foot of the launch hill. Now, that’s emotion!

3) My Long Distance Renovation – Yes, a gazillion emails, a baker’s dozen phone calls, and countless hours pouring over design ideas on Houzz and Pinterest and we still have weeks to go before the old home in Gibsons is ready for habitation. My bet? April Fool’s Day. How fitting.

4) My Ascendant Athletic Career – Still in full swing, er, pardon the pun. Though my Ladies over 55 3.0 Team may now be firmly established ‘cellar dwellers’, my Couples Invitational Golf Foursome cleaned up last week with a come from behind win in lowly flight four to capture what is perhaps the ugliest trophy I have ever seen. But I like to think even in ‘fully distracted from writing mode’ these recreational pursuits provide writers’ fodder, something to learn about life and emotion. Case in point, yesterday’s pre-match tennis clinic with Coach Greg, an amazing guy who despite teaching tennis all day long, all week long, still maintains his love of the game, sense of humour and enthusiasm. Yesterday, we practiced a new skill: returning a deep lob with another backhand lob. Sounds simple, for sure, but picture eight women of a certain age, jaw’s set, bouncing in anticipation as the lob sails over their head.. back-pedal… back-pedal… back-pedal… racquet up… high over head… watch it… watch it…  ‘whiff’! Damn! Missed it! We’re panting, we look ridiculous, we’re making spectacles of ourselves, and all I can think about is what in human nature makes us want to do this? What makes the eight of us want to compete, makes us want to master this skill even knowing we look ridiculous. Why? I’m still not sure, but I know, someday, I will harness that I-will-not-give-up attitude and use it in my writing. I will remember these determined women, some closer to 70 than 55, and remember that youth is a state of mind, my team mates real life inspiration for characters yet to be written.

5) Work – let’s not even go there. Suffice it to say that after yet another week of showing at least a dozen homes to buyers, I still have not elicited an offer. But hey, must stay positive. That doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen this week. There’s a new development that just opened, one community over that is getting a lot of buzz. This afternoon, after a morning at the office, I’m going to head off to Trilogy at the Polo Club and preview the model homes for some of my buyers. But again, let’s not focus on the negative (how much time working is taking away from writing) let’s focus on the positive. Once again, I’m grateful for the opportunity to study human nature. To watch the non-verbal communication of house-hunting couples, to discover how often we say we want one thing… but really want something else. Writing is about character… and I’m meeting a lot of them.

6) Housework – let’s not even go there.

Bottom line? Over-extended or not, I’m having a great time studying character and emotion, filing away real life experiences to use in my work at some future date. Just as my 5writer colleague Helga is ‘mining’ her life’s experiences for setting and character to use in her fiction, I like to think of this over-extended, highly distracted phase of my writing life as the hunter-gatherer stage. I’m gathering up emotions, experiences, settings… I’m hunting for characters… and when I do find some quiet moments for writing, my writers tool box will be full!

At least, that’s the plan!


My love letter to writers


Silk’s Post #72 — Writers are Beautiful Dreamers. That’s one of the things I love best about them, and I’m coming to realize that it’s probably my key motivator in choosing the writing life. So this is my love letter to kindred spirits.

This special species of human being – the Beautiful Dreamer – has always been relatively rare, except among children. We are supposed to grow out of this mentality when we hit adulthood, as though there’s obviously something more important to achieve in life than being curious, imaginative, empathetic, creative and hopeful. As though ‘dreaming’ and ‘working’ are two different planets that inhabit separate galaxies, never to come within a million light-years of each other’s orbits.

It’s no surprise that Beautiful Dreamers tend to cluster in the arts. Or that their primary motivation, and reward, is not really about making money. How many creative people were discouraged in their youth from pursuing their dream to be a novelist, a singer, a painter, a playwright, a sculptor, an actor, a dancer, an inventor? The talents for which children are lavishly praised (“What a beautiful painting, pumpkin”) somehow become re-cast as irrelevant hobbies when it’s time to choose a real profession (“But sweetheart, you can’t really expect to make a living as a painter”).

When I ran my agency, I employed many very talented fine artists who, in order to pay the rent, re-channeled their creativity into what was originally called ‘commercial art’ (later to be known as the disciplines of graphic design and illustration). Fortunately, most of them remained Beautiful Dreamers.

What especially confuses the pursuit of writing for Beautiful Dreamers is that it’s so pervasive in everyday life – a river fed by so many disparate streams.

“Everyone’s a writer,” we used to lament with a roll of our eyes in the agency business. Meaning: every client thinks they (or their office assistant or their sales associate) can write a headline, a slogan, a TV commercial. And they can. But most of the results are laughably dreadful and hackneyed (sorry, former clients, I exaggerate of course).

The fact is that everyone who’s literate does write – even if it doesn’t go much beyond emails or reports or business letters. Not everybody paints or sculpts – or even sings or dances – but pretty well everybody writes. And the special disciplines of professional writing (technical, journalistic, business, academic, scientific, promotional and other commercial writing forms) all demand high skill levels, offer some level of personal reward, and often even pay well. Lots of writers who dream of being novelists wind up in these niches.

I did.

But when I made the shift from my make-a-living career to my make-a-life career as a novelist, I had to resuscitate my slumbering Beautiful Dreamer. Believe me, it wasn’t just asleep, it was virtually in a coma after all those years of dreamless commercial writing.

My realist left brain told me that writing a novel would be nothing more than a hobby, an affectation. An amusing retirement time-filler now that my important (i.e., commercially valued) writing career was behind me. But that was just a cynic’s hangover from my many years of jaded adulthood.

After the rejuvenating therapy of attending writers conferences, working with my cherished 5writers colleagues/friends, and tentatively stumbling my way through my first novel and halfway through my second, my Beautiful Dreamer right brain has finally regained full consciousness. It took about three years. (Who expected that?)

Beautiful Dreamers believe in possibilities, even remote ones. When they’re told something is impossible, it doesn’t fling them into despair – it spurs them on. When popular wisdom dismisses freewheeling imagination and creativity as unserious indulgences, Beautiful Dreamers thumb their noses and push themselves farther out into uncharted territory, looking for—something. They don’t know what yet, but it’s out there …

… Some kind of truth, something that matters. Some different revelatory perspective. Some story that can be told in visuals, or sounds, or words – a story that will show us what it is to be human. A story with the power to make people care, laugh, think, cry, understand, love.

What sort of crazy pursuit is this? Well, not the kind many people really bother with after the age of, say, 18 or so. It violates the left-brained, adult notion that setting off without knowing your destination is folly. This ‘rule’ confuses purposeful, open-minded exploration with wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. Beautiful Dreamers may seek their holy grails, but also accept that the journey, in itself, can be a kind of destination.

What prompted all this introspection? By chance, I tuned in yesterday to “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute To the Beatles,” which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the night the Fab Four first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show back in 1964 and set off a mania.

Okay, I hear you saying “Cool,” but if you have even one skeptical brain cell, you may be automatically classifying this as nostalgic trivia. Another cheesy tribute show where all the obligatory stars come out in their spangles and pretend to be each others’ BFFs with phoney air kisses. An entertainment package aimed at baby boomers longing for their glory days, designed to sell air time to pharmaceutical companies eager to sell their target audience all manner of products to perk up their aging bodies. I’ll admit it, that’s where my mind went first.

But as I quieted my inner party pooper and listened to the music again – for the first time in a long time, truth be told – my Beautiful Dreamer got up and started dancing in my head. Not out of nostalgia for my youth. Not out of sentimentality for the flowering of my generation. Just simply because of the music itself. The art of it. The hopeful, wise, uplifting, anything’s-possible, Beautiful Dreamer quality of the tunes that made the Beatles one of the greatest bands in history.

I hadn’t realized until that night the degree to which I had dismissed them as a pop-culture artifact of the sixties. In the process of ‘maturing’ into a responsible adult, I had distanced myself from their optimistic, idealistic, yet irreverent music. Kids’ music. As I marched into the future with the rest of the gigantic (some might say robotic) baby boom cohort, I didn’t want to be ‘dated’ – stuck in what Bruce Springsteen slyly called “boring stories of glory days.” Oldies stations were for oldies. Masters (and Mistresses) of the Universe look ahead, not back.

But here I sat, listening to the old music with new ears, tears streaming down my face. Why? Because it felt so good to immerse myself in a soundtrack written by and for Beautiful Dreamers. Just as they did back when, the Beatles’ songs filled me full of hope and joy. The melodies and words still felt fresh. Timeless, in the same way that dreams always belong to the present and never get ‘dated’.

It was like waking up from a years-long sleep, and thinking – Where was I? Oh yeah, I remember. This is what I was supposed to be doing. Dreaming. Not sleeping.

Perhaps not all writers are Beautiful Dreamers. But a lot of them are, and I love them for it. As seekers, they elevate the world. They prize freedom. They are mindful. They help counteract the dead weight of skepticism, expediency, selfishness, fear, intolerance, corruption and other forms of negativity that drag humanity down to the level of our baser instincts.

In other words, we need as many of this breed as we can cultivate.

So, following the prescription that ‘All You Need Is Love’, I want to tell all you writers and other hopeful, curious, caring, creative souls out there that you are Beautiful Dreamers, and you’re close to my heart.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Write what you know. Not?


Helga’s Post #70 — Late with my post this week, but likely not too many people waiting for it. Too much going on in Sochi.

Who has ever heard of Sochi before it got awarded the Olympics? More importantly, how many people today would NOT know what it is and where it is?

With that in mind, here are some musings about location and setting, about writing what you know, and the role they play in our writing.

Write what you know. True or False? Both. Maybe.

An adage preached to writers at seminars and workshops. Don’t write a medical thriller if you’re a tax advisor or accountant. Forget a novel that takes place in the Borneo jungle when you’ve never set foot outside your own country. Don’t try to write a culinary mystery if you don’t know how to boil an egg.

Rule One, according to mystery writer Jeffery Deaver: Write about settings you’re familiar with.

Fair enough. Or is it? How about writing a novel about slavery if you haven’t been one and you haven’t lived during the time of slavery? Or a sci-fi novel that takes place on a distant galaxy, millions of light-years away?

The author’s redeeming feature is that none of your readers will have personal experience of such events and therefore can’t renounce them. But what about settings? How do you make sure your readers will connect with the locations of your story?

Chances are your novel has several different settings, some that you have never been to. While research can take you a long way to describe different settings with accuracy, it’s fair to say you will not be able to get that intimate and personal connection to a place you have never been to. That sense of knowing what it feels like to walk those streets, to taste that food, observe and talk to people, listen to that special laughter of children and the myriad of things that make up the personal experience of being there will elude you if based on research alone. One of my favorite blogs, Adventures in Wonderland, captures this beautifully. Much more than a travel blog, it takes its readers along to experience all the facets and emotions the various locations bring about.

But it’s more than feeling a place with all the five senses. It’s also a willingness to put aside my own standards and prejudices and let the distinctive atmosphere or pervading spirit of a place change me. And when that happens, I know I want to write about it. It gives me the confidence to try and share my experiences with my readers in a more rewarding way than postcard-pretty descriptions. We all know what sunsets look like. But watching the sun go down while holding hands with someone special and sharing the moment, transforms that sunset into something quite different. To capture the sense of that moment in a story can make a setting a powerful tool in a writer’s hand. Setting becomes an important character, even the anchor to a plot. Think The English Patient, or The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. 7176906906_c6b979dd06

Readers of the Quartet feel captivated by Alexandria’s atmosphere. From the meshed Arab backstreets, from the elegance of L’Etoile or the Cecil Hotel to the hashish cafés of the slums or the sandy approaches to the Western Desert, all make the city a major and vivacious character in the story. Durrell takes his readers inside the mansions of rich cosmopolitans and diplomats, stifling attic bedrooms, brothels and pleasure pavilions by the sea. With all the intricacies of the story, it’s the city of Alexandria who takes center stage. A kaleidoscope of senses that transports the reader to a place they can connect even if they will never set foot on.

I was only vaguely aware of just how powerful setting can be when I started my Cold War novel Closing Time. Or I thought I was. The story started on the border between Hungary and Austria during the unforgiving months of winter. I thought I nailed it because I grew up not far from there and was familiar with the location. But when rejection letters arrived I knew I’d have to do better. More work to be done on that front.

I will take care to make setting a major character in my new novel. Boardrooms, offices and kitchen tables can only take you so far in a story. Readers want to be transported to where they haven’t been before and have little chance to go to. This too is a writer’s responsibility.

With that in mind I am combing through my own experiences of places that touched me in some way. Places that played a decisive role in how my life would evolve. The proverbial fork in the road. If a certain colleague would not have gotten a job at the office where I worked in Vienna, I would not have left for Canada when I did. Then I would never have met my first husband and had two sons, and later my second husband, and so on and so forth. I would never have been part of the 5 writers 5 novels 5 months group!

It’s maddening to speculate ‘what if’, to fathom the randomness and the big mystery of life.

Places and settings determine so much of our life. Timing too. I will try to give it the center stage it deserves in my writing. And have fun reminiscing.

Don Maass on Publishing

I’m not counting this as one of my posts but I couldn’t figure out how to repost for the life of me, so here it is. He’s worth reading. He always is.

The New Class System

Donald Maass on Feb 05 2014 | Filed under: Business, REAL WORLD


Flickr Creative Commons: Jonathan Kos-Read

Flickr Creative Commons: Jonathan Kos-Read

This month in keeping with our look inside publishing, I’m departing from my usual craft advice to give you my view of the new state of the industry.

I don’t see the new shape of things as many do: the twilight of the dinosaurs, the old-thinking Big Five print publishers staggering, falling to their knees and heading for extinction as they’re overwhelmed by a nimble army of small, warm-blooded mammals whose claws are the sharp, smart, flexible tools of electronic publishing.

It’s true that I’m a gatekeeper, a longtime member (to my surprise) of the industry establishment. But I am no worshiper of the old ways. Traditional publishing always was cost-heavy and inefficient. It’s a wonder that it worked. But the new electronic “paradigm” is not the glorious revolution that true believers would like it to be.

What’s happened instead is an evolution of the publishing world into a new class system, and like any class system it has winners, losers and opportunities. It’s a system that, if not recognized for what it is, will trap frustrated writers in a pit far more hopeless than the one they yearned to escape. Let’s start with a couple of cold-eyed realities.

First, e-books have not hurt the print publishers but rather have helped them. Especially in the recent recession, low-cost/high-margin e-books have been a bright spot. They’ve kept publishers profitable even as brick-and-mortar book retailing has shrunk and consumers have grown cautious. With the mass-market paperback pricing itself nearly out of existence, low-priced e-books have arrived (with help from the Department of Justice) to keep value-conscious readers reading. Of course, the difficult and expensive business of selling print books must still be faced but at least there’s some gravy to make the task tasty.

Second, the self-publishing movement has been a boon to the print industry. Far from being threatened, print publishers instead are now gratefully relieved of the money-losing burden of the mid-list. Like giant banks that have discovered that banking is boring and the real money is in gambling, big publishers are now free to focus on the high-risk/high-reward game of finding the next Twilight, Hunger Games,Game of Thrones or Fifty Shades of Grey.

Better still, because some authors are now—voluntarily!—willing to bear the expense and undertake the effort of building an audience by themselves, print publishers have the luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd. Even print-only distribution deals with a handful of successful e-published authors are terrific: easy pickings and effortless profit. Most authors are still knocking at the gate, too, since after all seventy percent of trade book sales are of print editions. In many ways these are good times for print publishers.

Third, the self-publishing movement has produced gold-rush hysteria in the writing community. While not exactly a mass delusion, questionable beliefs have been widely accepted. True believers sneer at doubters. So what is the real truth? High success at self-publishing has happened only for a few who have mastered the demanding business of online marketing. A larger, but still small, number of authors have achieved a modest replacement income from self-publishing. Growth from there will be hard for them, however, because wide print distribution still is needed. (Seventy percent of trade book sales are of print books, remember?)

As for the rest…well, the position of the vast majority of self-publishing authors is no better than it ever was, though probably there are fewer cartons of books in their garages. Consultancy to self-publishers is a new job category, however, and that has to be good for the nation’s employment stats.

Fourth, as I said, a new class system has arisen. Here’s how it breaks down:

Freight Class

Self-published authors and electronic micro-presses must haul themselves. While the means of production are easy and low-cost, the methods of marketing are costly either in terms of cash or time. Success is rare. The pleasure of being in control is offset by the frustration of “discoverability”. Online retailers are whimsical and ludicrously over-stocked, both barrier and open door. Lists, blogs, social sites and the like are plentiful but of only spotty help. Trusted filtering of self-published books may arise (watch the recent sale of Bookish to Zola, two recommendation sites started by—gasp!—publishers and agents) but don’t hold your breath. The real problem is that fiction at this level has trouble appealing widely to readers. It can sell when priced at $2.99, sometimes a bit more, often less.

Why? Let’s look at what characterizes Freight Class fiction. While the Kindle bookstore can be an incubator of innovative fiction, for the most part it is an ocean of genre imitations if not amateurish writing. Freight Class novels generally take few risks. Too often they rely on character stereotypes, heavy-handed plots, purple and obvious emotions, and messages and themes that are time-worn. Justice must be done. Love conquers all. Good vs. evil. Freight Class fiction can be easy to skim. Literary flourishes are few, cliffhangers are many. Genre conventions are rigidly honored. Characters are not motivated from within, for the most part, but instead are pushed into action by external plot circumstances.

Coach Class

Here we find decently-written literary fiction and nicely-crafted commercial fiction that achieves print publication but sells best at trade-paperback level ($14.99 or so), or discounted in e-book form. Coach Class novelists support each other yet find it difficult to gain a foothold with the public. So-called “marketing” by their publishers is disappointing and, truthfully, can only do so much. Traditional tours (when they happen) accomplish little, front of store incentives are costly, and online marketing sometimes seems to consist of the hope that Amazon will do a price promotion. Coach Class authors, however, are professionally edited and get goodies like nice covers, ARC’s, and plenty of blurbs. Plus, their books are in bookstores, a big boost in visibility.

What characterizes Coach Class fiction? Readable pages, appealing characters, clever premises, attention-grabbing plot hooks, a display of craft and art, emotional engagement, and themes that “resonate”…which is to say, that stir readers without greatly challenging them. Coach class fiction is less easy to skim. While characters can be motivated from within, their inner journeys can feel somewhat painless. Readers are “engaged” but don’t always feel deeply moved. Coach Class fiction sometimes borrows secondary characters from history or classics, retells other stories, or stretches into series that can become thin. Genre conventions may be borrowed or blended but essentially they are not violated. Coach Class is a moderately comfortable place to be, though one can feel stuck in one’s seat. Economy shocks can hurt.

First Class

The cream class gets a double shot of extended life in bookstores, both in hardcover and later in paper. Their books can sell well at $25 and live long in trade paper. For First Class authors, success looks effortless. Goodies accrue easily. Recognition is instant and wide. Sub-rights sell. Awards happen. Insulated from economy shocks, authors of this class never seem to worry about the industry. In interviews they talk only about their art and process. They mentor. Lines are long at BEA booth signings and readers are fiercely loyal.

Why all that seemingly-effortless success? First Class fiction is characterized by memorable characters, unique premises, story worlds instantly real, plots that grip even when slow, gorgeous writing, and themes that surprise, challenge and change us. Not only do we read every word, First Class writing makes us whistle in admiration. Characters are not only likeable and self-aware, but also follow a singular destiny. First class novels shake our way of thinking, challenging us to see the world in new ways. They confidently break rules, may transport us to unlikely cultures and times, teach us things we knew little about, and always feel utterly unique. Each novel creates its own genre. First Class fiction is imitated but never matched. Its authors are revered and for good reasons.

So, in which class are you? To which class do you aspire? Here’s the thing: In the real world, one’s class can be a prison. Politics plays in. The upper class can use its money to buy itself tax advantages, legal wizardry and gated communities that keep the rest out. Other classes stick together and stick with what they know. Revolution is rare, costs blood and doesn’t happen where minimal comforts are available.

In the world of publishing, though, it’s not like that. Authorship is a true meritocracy. (Sorry, it is.) In publishing there is social mobility. As an author you can change your class, though of course it’s not always easy to do so. It takes education, time and effort. It means seeing yourself differently, having courage and violating the norms and expectations of your community. (One of the most common laments I hear is, “I got published…and lost a lot of my friends.”)

Do things look different inside publishing today? Yes and no. There’s innovation all over the place but also for authors a picture more challenging than ever. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Inequality is vast. But change doesn’t require billionaire money buying elections. You don’t need a phony revolution. You can change your class by yourself, right at home, one keystroke at a time.

I’ve exaggerated the above for effect, obviously, but in a lot of ways that’s how the industry looks to me now. How does it look to you?

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.

JustJoe and JustJake



Paula’s Post #62 – I’ve played too much airport roulette this week to  get off a proper post this morning, my apologies.  Instead, my day will inevitably be filled with such mundane working writer pursuits as dog haircuts, Costco run, cooking, cleaning, general contractor and playing ‘home travel agent’. But, not wanting to miss the chance to share an inspiring story with our loyal 5writer followers, I just had to post this inspiring story I saw on the CBS news last evening.

Honestly, JustJake? Seriously?

Remind you of anyone we know and love? This is for you JustJoe!

The Story of JustJake:

Jake Marcionette was just 12 years old when he started cold-calling literary agents hoping to land a deal to get his book published. Now, his story about the hardships of middle school life goes on sale this week, and he’s already at work on a sequel!




Silk’s Post #71 — For a writer, nothing beats the feeling you get when you start on a new story. To riff on Paula’s great post last week, “Serial monogamy”, it’s like the rush of falling in love.

I call it Writerlust.

You’re vibrating inside with the thrill of possibility. Your endorphins kick in. You’re filled with energy and purpose. Ideas bubble up out of nowhere, and bits of dialogue play in your head. The world looks a little brighter. You feel a little smarter, a little cooler, a little more adventuresome, a little more confident. You wake up in the morning excited about spending the day with your hot, new muse. You hit the keyboard before the coffeemaker has even finished gurgling.

doris-dayI’m feeling the love right now. I had a chance to discuss my new book concept with my 5writer colleagues last week, and got a pretty strong thumbs-up. At least that’s how I heard it, because, in the immortal words of Doris Day, “Everybody Loves a Lover.” When you’re in Writerlust, your infatuation is contagious and everything sounds like an endorsement.

But I’ve been hurt before.

I’m no Romantic Advice columnist, but I’ve decided I should give myself a little talking-to. Just, you know, in case things don’t totally work out the way I hope. Just on the off chance that I actually cannot write my amazing new story in a month-long gush of boundless creativity, skimming across the surface of the Saggy Middle Swamp on magical writer’s feet towards an orgasmic climax that no agent or publisher will be able to resist. In one draft.

So … Notes to Self:

Enjoy your euphoria right now. Don’t let anything bring you down to Earth too soon – stuff like preparing your tax returns, or cleaning anything that’s been let go for a couple of years, or trying to fix the first draft mess of your last unpublished book, or making your first attempt at serving a turducken to dinner guests. Remember, euphoria is ephemeral (see how good you’re getting with those esoteric “e” words?).

hotel new hampshireTake this opportunity to become obsessed. You will need to survive the many dangers and deprivations of your writing journey on the fading memory of these fleeting feelings of Writerlust. So right now, while you’re thirsty to write, drink the Kool-Aid and commit yourself totally to the story you’re in love with. Take the sage advice of the madly successful writer John Irving in Hotel New Hampshire: “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”

Inoculate yourself against perfectionism. Okay, right now your book is perfect. That’s because you haven’t written it yet. It’s just a sexy mirage in your head. One morning, when you have 25,000 words on the page, you’ll wake up and look at your darling story and see what’s really lying there beside you in bed: something far less than perfect. It may snore. It may have bad breath. Or missing teeth. It may have packed on the weight in all the wrong places. You may wonder what you were thinking, bringing this thing home with you. But if you’ve inoculated yourself with the anti-perfectionism serum, everything will be okay. You’ll give your story a knowing look – full of love and sympathy – and get back to work, confident that you can get it in shape at rewrite time. A great story always cleans up nice.

Put on your chastity belt. While you’re living with the story you’ve said “I do” to, keep your roving eyes on the straight and narrow. No flirting with other new stories. No tearful calls to your old bookfriend in the middle of the night – the one abandoned in the bottom drawer that’s looking better and better compared to the new story you’re struggling with. No giving-in to aching desire when you read your favourite writer’s newest book and realize it’s better – way better – than the story you’re deeply involved with. Buckle up and be true to your sweetheart.

Remember that you can’t hurry love. Who could forget the sage words Mama said, as immortalized by The Supremes:


You can’t hurry love
No, you just have to wait
She said love don’t come easy
It’s a game of give and take

When you’ve been living with this story that you’re marrying for months and months … and you just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel … and all your writer friends are already working on their query letters … and there are moths fluttering out of your file of agents who told you to send them a chapter (but not until the book is really, truly finished and it’s the best it can possibly be) … and on bad days you wonder why you ever fell in Writerlust with this story in the first place … well, just sing yourself this song. Don’t try to jump into bed with the first passing agent and allow yourself to suffer from premature evaluation.

Wise words to be sure. I will likely forget it all as my life with this new story stretches from days into weeks, and weeks into months … as my Writerlust heat cools and I encounter the tepid ennui of writer’s fatigue, and the cold sweats of writer’s block. So it’s a good thing I wrote it all down. Now I just have to remember take my own advice.

Writing a novel involves a long-term, committed relationship, not a one-night stand. It demands a huge chunk of your life, and there are times when every writer wonders whether it’s really worth the time, effort and angst.

The gurus advise us: Write what you really care about. I’d add: Follow your Writerlust. Make sure you’re all-in with both your head and your heart before you start.

fire-in-fictionThis goes beyond craft and technique. When agent/lecturer Don Maass titled his great 2009 book The Fire in Fictionhe didn’t just mean the fire on the page, he meant the fire inside the writer. I think that only a wild passion for your story at the outset will sustain you through 400 hard-won pages of writing that is capable of captivating a reader.

At least I hope so, because I’m deep in the embrace of a story I love and I’m going for it.